As you can expect, reading is a big part of my summer break. I mean, it’s a big part of my day at any point in the year, but in the summer I can read a lot more of what I consider to be fun. (I still enjoy reading in the school year, when I’m absorbing the same works you students do, as well as my grad school and professional readings – but here I get a little more choice!) What I don’t do often is reread a book shortly after I’ve finished it. Who has the time? One of the best exceptions to this rule, and one of the best reads I had this summer, was in Mark Siegel’s graphic novel Sailor Twain (from First Second, 2012).
Sailor Twain is centered on Elijah Twain, the writer-captain of a Hudson River steamship in the 1880s. (Twain, by the by, is of no relation to the author, who our captain must frustratingly point out is actually a Mr. Clemens.) Joining the bedeviled sailor is the ship’s gruff and motley crew, including the womanizing owner of the ship, Lafayette, as well as a foul-mouthed helmsman, two stowaways, a mysterious engineer, and a various assortment of New York passengers (keep an eye out for cameos from the likes of Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Stephen King!). And, of course, there is the mermaid of the full title, who Twain must decide is either savior or siren.
Available at the Laramie County Library, this text holds many epic qualities: an expansive and realized cast of characters, elements of fantasy interwoven in spirituality, and a portrait of near-mythic America on the Hudson River. As a work of historical fiction, the world of the narrative is well centered in established movements and attitudes of America’s Gilded Age. What’s more, the artwork – almost entirely in charcoal – is evocative and symbolic. The rainy atmosphere and river setting were easily imagined despite our dusty August heat. Most importantly, Siegel’s use of motif, ambiguity, and doubling are absorbing. You are almost obligated to reread the novel to add your newfound evidence to the intricate clues.
This novel is definitely for mature readers (sexuality, complexity, language), but is my August pick for seniors to read, for two key reasons. First, it makes a great review of the themes of American Literature for those of you who survived last year. Second, Sailor Twain leads nicely into both senior classes’ content, addressing similar themes and also introducing you to the graphic novel format, which you can expect to see in the upcoming school year. In conclusion, it is important to read books and genres outside of your usual experiences. Anyone who still thinks, in 2015, that comics or graphic novels aren’t necessarily “real” literature needs to see what they are missing out on in Mark Siegel’s new American classic, Sailor Twain.